If judges feel a person is a danger to society, they won’t make them eligible for bail. That’s what Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, said when her organization announced a necessary and compassionate plan to pay bail for 500 women and teenagers to release them from Rikers Island. So the fear of dangerous defendants being released is greatly overblown.
Yet RFK’s efforts do call attention to the troubling state of our biased and broken bail system. It’s a system that has New Yorkers serving months to years on Rikers Island for low-level offenses before they are able to have their day in court — simply because they are poor.
Critics argue that such an action will endanger society and those released will not return for trial. In reality, having a third party post bail on behalf of a struggling New Yorker is a highly effective method that has been tried and tested in New York for approximately five years with great success to both the individual released from jail and society overall.
In 2012, I passed the Charitable Bail Fund Law in New York after a local group convinced me too many people are detained endlessly because they are poor. Some even feel forced to plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit because by serving a sentence they can shorten their time behind bars.
Fact is, in our country, you are innocent until proven guilty, but not everyone is able to post bail and await trial at home. In most cases, it is poor people who lose their homes, children, jobs and lives because they can’t afford to be released. Eventually, 90 percent of individuals unable post bail plead guilty, even if they did not commit the crime, according to the Bronx Freedom Fund, New York’s first charitable-bail group.
This law allowed groups to post bail for low-income residents facing misdemeanor charges, where bail is set at $2,000 or less. It was an effort to provide poor New Yorkers the same access to resources to navigate the justice system as middle-income and high-income individuals.
Since the Bronx group began in 2013, it has posted bail for thousands and reports that 96 percent of its clients have shown up for all their court dates. Money used for their bail was then returned to the fund for the next case. Meanwhile, taxpayers didn’t have to pay to needlessly and cruelly incarcerate these people.
Ultimately, 55 percent of those cases were dismissed, and an additional 40 percent resulted in a non-criminal disposition, the fund notes. These people were judged by a New York state court and were either found not guilty or given a violation.
True, the RFK plan might not entirely meet all the criteria of a charitable-bail group under the law. But that doesn’t make its work wrong. And though the law limits individuals or groups (aside from bail bond businesses) to two bailouts a month, RFK has over 200 volunteers who can each post bail.
Fact is, the RFK initiative seeks to help more poor New Yorkers than what the law establishes. Clearly, we need to do more.
In 2010, my constituent, Kalief Browder, was arrested for stealing a backpack. Kalief Browder spent three years in jail, all along maintaining his innocence, while the system delayed his trial and ultimately dropped his case altogether. Kalief Browder was just 16 at the time. At Rikers, he was abused for years, leaving him deeply traumatized. After being released, he tragically took his own life in 2015.
Kalief Browder suffered needlessly because his family simply was not able to afford his $3,000 bail, more than the current law allows charitable bail organizations to post for their clients.
RFK’s initiative will give hundreds of New Yorkers a fair shot while highlighting how our system is predisposed to criminalize the poor. However, it will not prevent those who will be arrested tomorrow from being victimized by our broken system.
That responsibility falls on me and my colleagues in the Legislature. At a minimum, we need to pass my new bill to expand our charitable-bail system. And we need to go even further and overhaul our criminal-justice system to make it fair to rich and poor alike.
Gustavo Rivera represents the 33rd Senate District in The Bronx and serves on the Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections Committee.
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